How Camilla’s grandfather helped popularise the architecture Prince Charles detests

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Was the Bauhaus the most inspired art school of all time or the malignant source of an uglifying industrial culture which has defiled our cities? Two books look at its influence abroad after 1933 when the Nazis put the jackboot in.

The Bauhaus was nothing if not modern — even if ‘modern’ is now a historical style label and the Bauhauslers were as trapped in their historical circumstances as we are in our own. This was noticed and ridiculed by Tom Wolfe in his 1981 squib, From Bauhaus to Our House, a book as bristling with cheerful spite as with clever wordplay.

Although not quite so simple, the Bauhaus was dedicated to the idea that the prospects for all mankind could be determined by engineering and metaphors of engineering. And its genius was Walter Gropius, not a Bolshevik firebrand but an officer-class Prussian so austere that a member of his staff, the painter Paul Klee, called him the Silver Prince.

One reason the Bauhaus became so influential was Gropius’s clever branding: something arising from a total commitment to his project. ‘Bauhaus’ was a new coinage, but evoked the Bauhutte, or guilds, of the Middle Ages which Gropius idealised.  It was certainly easier to export phonically than Gieblichenstein Kunsthochschule, a rival art school in Halle.

Another reason is that Gropius surrounded himself with talent: for example, he hired Kandinsky to teach art in provincial Saxony-Anhalt. Imagine getting Ronaldo to play for the pub team. And with great branding insight, Gropius published the Bauhausbucher, holy writ of modernism, laying down the law on abstract painting, Existenzminimum design and non-representational film as an art form.

Gropius himself left Germany in 1934, but first appeared in England in 1928, lightly disguised as Evelyn Waugh’s Professor Silenus in Decline and Fall. Silenus’s architectural masterpiece is a Hungarian chewing-gum factory, a line which inspired Wolfe to write in his best ho-ho mode: ‘Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating machine replacement parts wholesale distribution centre.’

There’s really no gainsaying that the Bauhaus attracts odium from the pediment-and-swag brigade, led by Prince Charles on his feudally caparisoned retro warhorse. So it is a delicious irony that Camilla’s grandfather was Philip Morton Shand, an epicure and modernist booster who introduced Gropius to London and translated his The New Architecture and the Bauhaus.  Before he fetishised crumpets and Metroland, John Betjeman was a Bauhaus enthusiast too. However, Anthony Blunt warned that Bauhaus architecture was not ‘homey’.

But even as Gropius arrived at Victoria station, Bauhaus design had a presence in Britain. In 1931 Jack Pritchard and Wells Coates, the former a plywood-salesman- turned-furniture-entrepreneur, the latter a raffishly attractive Anglo-Canadian architect who was writing a PhD thesis on ‘The Gases of the Diesel Engine’, visited Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau. Inspired, they came home and built the remarkable Isokon flats in Hampstead.

This, described uncharitably as a ‘human nest’ while looking like an ocean liner, became a home for Gropius and a colony of champagne socialists — as well as Agatha Christie. Philip Harben, later a pioneer telly chef, cooked in the Isobar; fine wines and Havana cigars were available to all the communards. Meanwhile, the concrete was structurally expressive — and, importantly, because this was a branding exercise for Isokon, photographed extremely well, even if the stain of water intrusion was a problem from the beginning.

Alan Powers is an architectural writer with a revisionist agenda. Thus he describes the Bauhaus émigrés as ‘unproductive and insignificant’ during their time in London.  ‘Goes West’ in his title is a double entendre. True, Gropius was restless and homesick, building very little of true note, but surely Betjeman and Gropius’s chief operating officer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, collaborating on a picture book about Oxford was a productive, significant and unanticipated coming together of cultures.

Powers’s argument is an interesting one.  It is not, he says, that the Bauhaus visitors during their brief stay spread a foul doctrine like a plague; rather, that in England they learnt a more conciliatory approach to architecture which was helpful in establishing careers in America, whither they all fled as soon as they possibly could.

If this is true, then it was not obviously a good thing. Gropius’s American buildings, including his home in Lincoln, Connecticut, which he inhabited while teaching at Yale, and the Pan Am building in New York, are not distinguished — at least not in a good way. The latter, now rebranded Met Life and straddling Park Avenue like a bad memory, is frequently cited as the most reviled building in the city. Meanwhile, the best Bauhaus buildings are also in Manhattan as well as in Chicago, the super-lative Seagram Building on Park Avenue and the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, designed by Gropius’s successor as Bauhaus director, Mies van der Rohe. But Mies never dallied in Britain, which rather troubles Powers’s theory.

Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund have written the more approachable book. Almost chatty in style, it considers the Bauhaus diaspora through the microscope of Hampstead. And the photographs are wonderful. Powers is more scholarly, more keen to argue a point, sometimes a little effortfully. His wide-angle lens reaches even to Birmingham, where at the art college a Bauhausler called Naum Slutzky taught Patrick Le Quement, who eventually designed your neighbour’s Renault Scenic.

One book celebrates, the other re-evaluates. It is modish to say that modernism failed, and to point out that Bauhaus rhetoric was way in front of Bauhaus achievements. But the Bauhaus was a school, not a factory; an idea, not a style. And that idea was: decent buildings arise from a proper understanding of materials, structures and purposes. It is a timeless idea, wherever it goes.

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